This morning the American Enterprise Institute hosted a forum with the amusing title, “Albert Shanker: Madman or Visionary?” The featured speaker was Richard Kahlenberg, author of “Tough Liberal,” a biography (previously discussed here on Labor Pains) of the man who organized New York City’s teachers in the 1960s and catapulted himself to the forefront of the education world for the next 30 years. Each of the other panelists (not all of whom were steady allies of Shanker when he was president of the American Federation of Teachers) made a convincing case from their personal experiences working with and/or against him that Shanker was indeed a visionary, even if his reform advocacy rubbed some people the wrong way.
What received scant attention from this morning’s panel, however, was the fact that many of the people rubbed the wrong way by Shanker’s constant drive for educational improvement and reform had their careers in the same union movement he built. The AFT president was able to use his position as a bully pulpit — and in so doing he made an indelible mark on how we think about education — but he had very little ability to push reforms at the state and local levels that local union leaders didn’t want. A review of Kahlenberg’s book includes this Shanker quote: “Convincing people to change has been a damn difficult thing to do. I would go into a state, talk up reform, and as soon as I left, the union attorney would come in and say, ‘We’ve got a great tenure law, let’s keep it.'”